Dark But Short: Russia’s Shadow on Georgia’s Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 104

Russia is casting its dark shadow on Georgia’s electoral campaign, but it is not the proverbial long shadow. Rather, it affects Georgia’s internal politics at its outer fringe, far short of beclouding the political system or any significant voter constituency. Russia’s recently acquired allies in the Georgian “National Council” show ratings in the low-to-mid single digits, on the eve of country-wide local elections.

However, Moscow seems prepared to step up its attempts at political recruitment in Georgia. On May 22, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared on television that making alliances with Georgian political groups “does not amount to meddling in internal affairs, but simply laying a basis for normalization of inter-state relations, in the interest of the Georgian people” (MIR Television, May 22; Interfax, May 23).

Two points in Putin’s interview seem indicative of Moscow’s political planning for Georgia. First, he touted Nino Burjanadze, former chairwoman of the Georgian parliament, for (in effect) switching sides and turning to Russia. According to Putin, this proves that Moscow can welcome new allies from among once-prominent supporters of “the current Georgian president” [Putin and other Russian officials can hardly bring themselves to utter President Saakashvili’s name]. As became evident with the recruitment of former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli in October 2009, Moscow seeks to encourage defections of establishment figures, in a peel-off process over time. Clearly, however, Moscow has overrated Noghaideli’s and Burjanadze’s usefulness, let alone their power of example for others to follow suit.

The other notable message in Putin’s interview is his appeal to Orthodoxy, which he described as a common religion of the Russian and Georgian peoples, and implicitly as a political bond between societies. (This common misrepresentation ignores the Georgian Church’s distinct features and its autocephaly). Moscow had previously used the appeal to Georgian Orthodoxy at lower levels of politics and propaganda, but not promoted it from the top of Russia’s political leadership. Moscow is playing to a strain of resistance to modernization and westernization among some Georgian churchmen and their lay allies. Apparently, Russian political planners hope to encourage a “broad-based alliance,” ranging from disgruntled politicians to religious opponents of the Georgian government’s liberal (on some issues, libertarian) course.

Moscow has encouraged a Tbilisi newspaper publisher, Malkhaz Gulashvili, to lead a group of devout Orthodox believers who staged violent incidents in the Georgian capital on May 6 and 8. Gulashvili had previously attended several opposition meetings in Russia, and he fled to South Ossetia (presumably with Russia as destination) after those incidents in early May. On May 25 (eve of Georgia’s national day) a group of former office-holders from the 1990s, led by former Imereti governor Teimuraz Sashiashvili, took part in a counter-event hosted by North Ossetian authorities in Vladikavkaz (Civil Georgia, May 26),

Noghaideli’s May 13 announcement, that his “National Council” would soon open representative offices in Moscow and St.Petersburg (EDM, May 15, 18), presages essentially a symbolic step.

Noghaideli and Burjanadze are mired in single-digit political ratings despite enjoying unimpeded access to Georgia’s country-wide television channels. During the campaign leading up to the May 30 local elections, Noghaideli used that access to threaten (as did radical oppositionists not affiliated with Russia) with violent protests, if the election results are rigged, which he anticipated. For her part, Burjanadze accused the government of having secretly bombed its own country during the August 2008 war with Russia.

Burjanadze and her group did not feel confident enough to run in the elections; instead, they boycotted the contest, with the argument that local elections can not resolve national problems. National Council leader Noghaideli would not himself run for Tbilisi mayor (despite his strong managerial credentials) but allowed an allied faction’s leader, Zviad Dzidziguri, also with single-digit ratings, to incur certain defeat in the election.

On May 24 the wealthy Georgian businessman based in Russia, Alexander Ebralidze, appealed to Georgian opposition factions across the board to unite, and promised financial support for a united opposition. Ebralidze has hosted several meetings in Russia and third countries for Georgian oppositionists and is believed to work with Russian authorities in this regard. He was able to broadcast his latest appeal full-text on Georgian television (Imedi TV, May 24).

In sum, Russia can only find political allies among a small number of has-beens or marginals in Georgia at this time. Moscow has yet to find any Georgian allies with whom to make a political agreement, and who could be expected actually to deliver on such an agreement.

The governing United National Movement has treated Moscow’s Georgian allies during this campaign with a mix of tolerance and contempt. It allowed them unduly generous air time on TV; generally refrained from polemicizing with them; and occasionally it dismissed them, as Saakashvili did (Rustavi-2 TV, May 21), by quoting Lenin’s words, “useful idiots,” about Moscow”s fellow-travellers abroad.<iframe src=’https://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>